The three ingredients to negate an evil decree before Yom Kippur are Teshuvah, Tefilah and Tzedakah – Repentance, Prayer and Charity. As we approach the awesome days of Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur and work on ourselves during the month of Elul, it behooves us all to take a closer look at these three essentials.
The month of Elul is synonymous with Teshuvah, Repentance. Smart people also make a strong effort to patch up friendships that have gone sour and to make amends to people they know that they have wronged. This is because even the Holy Day of Yom Kippur itself, with all of its afflictions and devout prayers, atones only for the sins between us and Hashem. The sins between our fellow man and ourselves cannot be forgiven unless we appease the ones we have hurt and acquire their forgiveness.
It is for this reason that Elul is also a time for us to be magnanimous with our forgiveness of others, for as good Jews, we surely don’t want anyone to be punished on our account. Do we really want someone to break a leg because they were nasty to us? Let’s remember that forgiving others is a form of compassion before Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur and, as such, it is highly effective in bettering our chances for a good year. This is because we are taught, “Kol hemiracheim al habriyos, merachamim alav min HaShamayim – Whoever has mercy upon others, Hashem will have mercy upon him from Heaven.”
What if you find it difficult to forgive someone? Let’s say, for example, someone caused you to lose an exciting job opportunity or perhaps they wrecked your chances at a good shidduch. How could you sincerely forgive someone who hurt you in such a terrible way? Here’s a suggestion. Make a deal with Hashem. Say to Him, ‘Hashem, this person really was nasty to me and he really doesn’t deserve my forgiveness. Still, I am willing to forgive him even though he doesn’t deserve it. Please, please, forgive me for my sins even though I surely don’t deserve it either.’
You might add the following postscript, ‘Hashem, I know that this person might even repeat such an offense against me in the future but I am still willing to forgive him for now. Please forgive me as well even though I might likewise slip-up with aveiros, sins, sometime in the future.’
Elul is also the last month of the year. As such it is a very vital month, for our Chazal teach us that, “Hakol holeich achar hachasom – Everything goes according to the finale.” It therefore behooves us to make the last part of the year the very best part in every spiritual way, whether it’s in our davening, our bentching, making brochos better, learning more Torah, spending more time with our spouse, parents and children, putting more thought into our tefillin, our tzizis, our mezuzahs, being more careful with taharas mishpacha [family purity], kashrus, and Shabbos, and trying to find as many opportunities as possible to do a full array of gemilas chasadim [acts of kindness] such as visiting the sick, gladdening the hearts of brides and grooms, helping the needy, giving respect to the dead and showing special kindness to the widow, orphan, converts and the poor.
But there is another angle to Elul that many people do not realize. At this time of the year we are acutely aware of the need to petition to Hashem to forgive us and a grant us a new lease of life, and it is for this reason that we get up early in the morning to say the selichos prayers asking Hashem for forgiveness. This is also why we spend most of the Day of Judgment and, of course, Yom Kippur in solemn prayer, begging Hashem to give us another chance to be better people. However, there is another side of prayer. This is to thank Hashem for all the wonderful things that He has given us already during the past year. The central prayer that we say on the first night of selichos has a recurring stanza that goes like this, “Lishmoa el harina v’el hatefillah,” where we ask Hashem, “To listen to our songs and or petitions.” Note that we mention song first because it is imperative that, before we ask Hashem for future privileges, we first thank Him for all the things He’s done for us in the past. It can be compared to the way we are with our older children when we spend a lot of money on them and devote much time to them. If they are appreciative and voice their gratitude, it is a pleasure to do more for them in the future. So too it is with Hashem, as the Chovos Halevovos succinctly reminds, “Devorim sherotzeh lehasmid bah, al tiftach bah – Things that you want to continue, don’t take them for granted.” Rather, constantly thank Hashem for all the kindness that He showers upon us, and then it will be a pleasure for Him to continue to do so in the future. One of our national names is Yehudim, which means people who give thanks, for we understand the importance of expressing thanks at all times. This is why we start off everyday of our life with the expression of Modeh Ani, thank you Hashem, and why every Jewish man says a whopping one hundred brochos every day. (Women say fewer brochos because of other pressing responsibilities to which she attends.)
So, as we prepare for the Day of Judgment, it is of course appropriate to look at our misdeeds in order to repair them. It is also important to look to the future and make kabbalos, new commitments, on how we will try to do better. After all, we are not simply asking Hashem to grant us just another year. We want an even better year and therefore, in return, we have to bring to Hashem our commitments on how we too will do better for the upcoming year. But, besides all of this, it is important to look back at our past year and take note of the many happy times we have had, all of the successes and the nachas, and make sure to say thank you to Hashem as we close the year. In that merit may Hashem bless us with a very healthy, happy, and wonderful New Year.
Let’s zoom-in on the great defense of tefilah and examine what real tefilah is.
The Rambam teaches us that the mitzvas asei, positive commandment, of prayer is derived from the verse, “V’avadetem es Hashem Elokeichem – To serve Hashem, your G-d.” This begs the question, How do we know that the verse is referring to the service of prayer? Maybe it means to serve Hashem by doing any one of the other numerous mitzvahs. The answer is found in another verse where the Torah says, “U’l’avdo bechol l’vav’chem – To serve Him with all your heart.” On this posuk the Gemora expounds, “Eizahu avoda shehi b’leiv? Hevei omer zu tefilah – What constitutes the service of the heart? The answer is prayer.” Thus, the Rambam concludes that when the Torah mandates ‘serving Hashem’ without further explanation, it means to pray to Him.
If we analyze this commandment of prayer carefully, we will discover a very fundamental principle: namely, that the essence of the command to pray to Hashem is not speech based. Rather, it revolves primarily around the arena of the heart. To bolster this concept, the great Avudraham reveals that the gematria of the words ‘b’kavanas haleiv,’ with the concentration of one’s heart, is 515, the exact numerical value of the word ‘tefilah’ itself. One of the major sources for many of the laws of prayer can be found in the verses in the Novi describing the eloquent prayers of Chanah. There it says, “Vayidabeir Chanah el liba – And Chanah spoke with her heart.” Again, this emphasizes the vehicle of the heart in proper praying.
The Zohar in Parshas Pekudei speaks very sternly about those who comes to shul and only gives lip service while their mind is far away. The Zohar says that the penalty for this very poor behavior is very great. Many people pride themselves about coming to shul, not talking, being careful to say every word of the tefilah. Perhaps they even daven with grammatical accuracy. Sadly, they don’t realize that if they don’t concentrate on the meaning of the words and that they are talking to Hashem, they miss out on the very essence of the commandment.
The Chovos HaLevovos teaches us that prayer without kavanah, proper concentration, is like a body without its soul and the peel without the fruit. Let’s examine this. Where do we find a body without a soul? In the morgue or six feet under in the cemetery! How sad that we could say about certain people who are praying by rote that they could be referred to as ‘Chevra Anshei Morgue’ or ‘Agudas Beis HaK’voros,’ for praying without concentration is a lifeless prayer. The next time you see a banana peel or the leftover scrapings of a potato, that’s the value of prayers without proper concentration.
But here’s a further novelty. The aforementioned Gemora says that the service of the heart is prayer. What exactly is the definition of this service? The ancient Sefer HaEshkol explains it as follows. The avoda of the heart is to strip away all worldly distractions when we come to pray to Hashem and to subjugate the heart, to concentrate on the prayers. Many of the early Chassidic Masters have elaborated that the primary duty is the first component, i.e., to free the mind of all other mundane thoughts. As a reward for this service, Hashem will help us have proper kavanah.
We know that the Gemora in Berachos teaches, “Tefilos kneged kabonos tiknom – Our prayers correspond to the sacrifices.” Rav Shimon Schwab, Zt”l, Zy”a, in his special sefer on tefilah, suggests that one of the steps of the service of karbonos in the Beis HaMikdosh, the temple, was hefshet, to flay the animal. The parallel service to this in our prayers is to flay away all our daily concerns and contemplations – such as what’s waiting for us in the office or at home, plans for the weekend, what we’re going to wear or eat, and countless other distractions, and to concentrate solely on heartfelt communication with Hashem.
Especially at this time of the year, when our prayer takes on a special tone of urgency as we petition Hashem for the health and well being of ourselves and our loved ones, let’s practice this preparatory step of purging our hearts and minds of everything else including playoff games, carpool arrangements, summer flashbacks, and Sukkos daydreaming, to concentrating exclusively on the rarified privilege of praising and talking to the King of kings. In this merit, may Hashem answer all of our prayers for the good and bless us with a very healthy, happy and altogether wonderful New Year.
It is interesting to note that when it comes to charity, the Torah departs from its customary way. On the whole, the Torah does not offer rewards for mitzvahs. This is because, “Schar mitzvah behai alma leka,” the reward for mitzvahs is not in this world but in the World-to-Come. Furthermore, in the best-case scenario, we are supposed to do the mitzvahs “Shelo al menas lekabel pras,” without thoughts of recompense, for considering all that Hashem does for us, is it appropriate to ask for a tip as well? However, when it comes to the mitzvah of tzedakah, the Torah and Chazal wax eloquently about the material rewards due to the charitable person.
The Torah tells us, “Aser t’aser – You shall surely tithe,” which the Gemora expounds upon to mean, “Aser beshvil sh’tisasher – Take tithes in order to become rich.” The Novi also tells us, “Uvachonuni na b’zos – You may test Me in this area (in charity)… Im lo harikosi lachem bracha ad bli dai – And you will see that I will shower you with blessing until you declare, ‘I have enough.’” In Pirkei Avos we are taught, “Marbe tzedakah, marbe shalom – One who increases his charitable output will increase harmony and tranquility in his or her own life.” And, we all know the vital Talmudic adage, “Tzedakah tatzil mimaves – Charity saves from death.”
I believe that one of the reasons why the Torah offers so many wonderful ‘lollipops’ for the philanthropic person is because there is a stern Torah directive on how to give charity. The Torah demands from us, “Al yeirah levovecha b’sitcha lo – Let not your heart be pained when you give of your money to the poor.” Now, this is understandably a very tough commandment to uphold – especially if one lives on a tight budget. It is not easy to part with your hard-earned money without feeling a natural pang of dismay – or worse. It therefore follows logically why Hashem offers all of these luscious rewards to assure us that, as we take money out of the wallet to give it to the poor, we are not losing anything even in this world. Rather, we are making one of the most prudent investments available to mankind.
Of course, when it comes to our Rosh Hashanah preparations, we are especially interested in the assurance that ‘Tzedakah tatzil mimaves,’ that charity saves from death for, as we know, on Yom Kippur, the Book of Life and the Book of Death are open before Hashem and He renders the final seal of our fates for each and every one on this awesome day.
Why is it that charity is unique in its ability to save our lives? Why don’t we say “Shabbos tatzil mimaves,” or “Kashrus tatzil mimaves,” or perhaps “Taharas mishpocha-family purity tatzil mimaves?” What is so special about charity that it is vested with such awesome power? I believe the reason is as follows. Let’s say you make twenty-five dollars an hour. You then go to shul on Shabbos and they have an appeal for Hatzoloh, the local Bikur Cholim, or your community yeshiva or day school. You benevolently respond by giving one hundred dollars. In essence, what are you really giving to charity? Let’s examine this carefully. It took you four hours to earn that money, so what you are really giving to charity is four hours of your life. We know that Hashem rewards in a very liberal way measure-for-measure the mitzvahs that we do. Therefore, since we are giving to charily some portion of our life, Hashem will reward us back with extra life, thus beautifully explaining why charily saves us from death.
So, let’s look for opportunities at this time of the year to give extra tzedakah. There are plenty of interesting possibilities. The enemy’s rockets have displaced many of our brethren in Eretz Yisroel and they urgently need our assistance. With rapidly escalating prices for so many goods and services due exorbitantly skyrocketing fuel costs, the poor have greater needs than ever in managing the basic needs of everyday life. But remember, giving charity is not only restricted to giving cash. Lending a friendly ear to a troubled person, spending a Sunday with a lonely soul, extending a helping hand to one who is desperately looking for a shidduch, or helping to negotiate a tuition contract for a family that is already floundering in credit card debt are all ways that one can invest in the great defense offered by tzedakah – even if the giver is not among the very wealthy. May it be the will of Hashem that we always remain able to give and never need to take.
In the merit of our increased commitment to Tshuvah, Tefilah, and Tzedakah, may Hashem bless us with a healthy, happy, and sweet New Year.
Sheldon Zeitlin takes dictation of, and edits, Rabbi Weiss’s articles.
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